SUBJECT: Drought Assistance.
SARAH HALL, HOST: The agricultural industry is begging for urgent assistance, including exit payments for those who want to leave the land permanently. The multi-million dollar package is likely to be released later this week.
Well, for more on this let’s speak to the Shadow Agriculture Minister and the Minister for Resources, Joel Fitzgibbon, who joins us now from his electorate in the New South Wales Hunter. Mr Fitzgibbon, good morning.
JOEL FITZGIBBON, MEMBER FOR HUNTER: Great to be with you, Sarah.
HALL: We’re hearing a multi-million dollar assistance package could be announced by the Government this week – what does it need to include?
FITZGIBBON: Well, it’s pretty extraordinary, Sarah, that six years on from abolishing the drought reform program that COAG had put in place in 2012, Cabinet is meeting yet again in an ad-hoc way to announce another drought package. They’re talking about a multi-million dollar package, only weeks ago until he was found out the Prime Minister saying, or claiming, he had a $7 billion package in place which, of course, has now been proven to be untrue. So, I think the rural sector is tiring of the ad-hoc, piecemeal approach to drought reform, and today it would be fantastic if the Government admitted that it’s wasted six years, and put us back on track to a meaningful, national, comprehensive drought strategy.
HALL: But the Resources Minister, Matt Canavan, he says the Government’s providing $600-700 million in direct assistance to drought-affected people, and then when you take into account those concessional loans its actually much more.
FITZGIBBON: Sarah, the Government has been inflating the figure for more than six years – well, for six years now and certainly in the last couple of years since the drought really began to grow much worse. I don’t know who Government Ministers think they are speaking with, but farmers in drought-affected rural communities know that they are not receiving the money. They are not getting the assistance they need, and are just collectively shaking their heads when they hear ministers constantly talk about figures – financial numbers – which we know to be inflated by including the capital value of concessional loans, and a future drought fund which doesn’t start for another year and, of course, doesn’t provide – or won’t provide – one cent to our drought-affected farmers.
HALL: Okay, well you’re the alternative government – so what’s Labor’s plan to help farmers in these drought hit communities?
FITZGIBBON: Well, as I said we need a comprehensive plan, and it has to have its focus on resilience. One of the foundations, of course, has to be an acceptance that our climate is changing and our government needs to respond. We need to help our farmers and our drought-ravaged to communities to adapt – that is change our behaviour both on farm and off farm. We do have to build the critical water infrastructure. The last government – federal government – to build water infrastructure in this country was a Labor Government more than six years ago.
And we need an income support system that is well targeted, is easy to access and remains in place while ever farmers are still in drought. Now, extraordinarily the Government something like 1800 farming families off the Farm Household Allowance – the income support payment – and that’s not just a terrible and callous act, but one which carries no policy rationale.
HALL: The National Farmers’ Federation is calling for exit payments for those who want to leave the land altogether. Is that something the Opposition supports?
FITZGIBBON: Well look, exist payments was one of the things the Productivity Commission said we should dispense with right back in 2009 I think it is – look, I don’t mind having the conversation about exist payments, they may have an application.
But this is absolutely the wrong time to be talking about exit payments because farmers are dealing with the psychological impacts of the drought too, and when you talk exit payments you may be considering the fact that some farmers will not be viable into the future. But the test for viability should not be whether a farmer can survive through the sixth, seventh and eighth year of drought. Some farmers are absolutely viable and can survive drought for six or seven years, but surviving into that eighth or ninth year requires an extraordinary level of resilience and it should not be the test of viability.
HALL: Well, parts of Queensland and New South Wales have received some significant rainfalls in recent weeks, not enough though to get those farmers in those regions out of the woods though, is it?
FITZGIBBON: That’s right, the rain, of course, is very, very welcomed and we all collectively pray for much more. But one drink doesn’t make a summer, and we will need a lot more meaningful rain over a long period of time to bring those farmers back to their normal levels of viability. That means, of course, that we can’t rest on our laurels as a result of the recent meaningful rainfall. The Government needs to step up to the plate finally, and deliver a comprehensive drought plan one which is well-targeted and faces the reality that farmers need help now, and in particular they need help getting feed to their stock.
HALL: Alright, we’ll leave it there Mr Fitzgibbon. Thanks for your time this morning.
FITZGIBBON: That’s a great pleasure.